« | Home | »

Six Questions about Tigantourine

Tags:

There are numerous aspects of the violent drama at the gas plant at Tigantourine near In Amenas in south-eastern Algeria that remain unclear if not frankly baffling. Since the dust is yet to settle this is not the moment to pass judgment on the behaviour of the Algerians or the significance of the event. Instead I propose to list some of the questions to which answers are needed if we are to get a clear view of what happened.

Who were the attackers? We have been told they were variously called Katibat El Moulathamine (‘The Brigade of the Masked Ones’) or ‘Those who sign in blood’. This uncertainty has been explained away by the suggestion that the latter are an ‘affiliate’ of the former. But since Katibat al-Moulathamine was set up only very recently, as a split from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), it has gained an affiliate very quickly. Eyewitness reports from the scene speak of a varied group, judging by their accents, including Egyptians, Tunisians and Libyans as well as Algerians and, according to one witness, a Frenchman wearing sunglasses. If this is true, what might it signify?

Who ordered the attack? The answer given by the Algerian interior minister, Dahou Ould Kablia, as early as Wednesday 16 January – and universally accepted – is Mokhtar Ben Mokhtar (or Belmokhtar). How is this information, which was produced so promptly, to be squared with the repeated reports of Ben Mokhtar’s death over the years? How do we know Ben Mokhtar is still alive, and, if he is, how do we explain his ability to survive on the run, evade capture and continue to operate for so long – since the 1990s – while numerous other jihadi leaders have been killed or captured over the years?

How was the attack organised? It transpires that Ben Mokhtar did not himself lead the attack but (supposedly) ordered it from his current (reported) base in Gao in northern Mali. This presupposes that, despite his recent split from AQIM, he has a very long arm indeed, or has managed to contract a far-flung network of accomplices.

Where did the attackers come from and how did they get to Tigantourine? The place is 40 kilometres from In Amenas and 100 kilometres from the Libyan border. If they were sent by Ben Mokhtar, did they start from Gao or somewhere else? In either case, did they enter Algeria directly from Mali or did they go via Libya? In the first case, the Algerian security authorities, with 35,000 troops along the southern borders, have questions to answer; in the second, the Libyan authorities do. The Mauritanian news agency ANI claims the group came from Niger, which would put the authorities in Niamey in the frame too. In this context, it is striking that Ould Kablia declared on Algerian television that the attackers ‘did not enter Algeria from Libya or Mali or any neighbouring country’ but were locals ‘from the region’. This thesis was subsequently corrected by the communications minister, Mohamed Said Belaid, who insisted on the commando’s multinational make-up. So how did they get there and why did Ould Kablia get it wrong? Was he misinformed? If so, by whom? Have opposed viewpoints been doing battle in Algeria’s corridors of power?

What was the object of the exercise? It was reported on Wednesday that the likely motive was retaliation against Algeria for allowing French planes bombing northern Mali to fly through Algeria’s airspace. But the Mauritanian news agency reported the same day that the attackers’ aim was not to punish Algeria but to demand the immediate cessation of French military operations in Mali. But then why attack an Algerian facility where the overwhelming majority of foreign personnel were not French? Could it be that the Algerian commentator who has claimed that the aim of the attack was to force the ‘internationalisation’ of the war in northern Mali, by precipitating wider Western involvement, was onto something? Moreover, the attackers were also reported as demanding the release of Omar Abd el-Rahman, the blind leader of the Egyptian jihadi group al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya, jailed in the United States for his role in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, and of Aafia Siddiqi, a Pakistani woman sentenced to 86 years in prison in the US in what many observers (and by no means only Muslims) consider a grotesque travesty of justice. The combination of these demands is bizarre if not absurd: why garble the message in this way – unless the purpose was to provoke greater American interest? But why should the attackers have this purpose?

Why have European capitals taken different views of the link to the Mali crisis? François Hollande has accepted, indeed emphasised the link between the Tigantourine attack and France’s decision to go to war in Mali, arguing that the former vindicates the latter. (One might also argue that it does nothing of the sort.) The British government has suggested that the attack required considerable preparation and so could not be a response to the developments in Mali or Algeria’s granting of overflight rights to the French air force just a few days earlier. Why this divergence? A spokesman for the attackers explained that they had anticipated Algeria’s concession to France. Is this credible? And why did the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, announce Algeria’s granting of overflight rights on French television on Sunday 13 January, and even state that these rights were ‘unlimited’, when Algiers had kept quiet about the service it was performing? Did he consult Algiers beforehand?

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.


  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • mideastzebra on Swedish-Israeli Tensions: Avigdor Liberman was not foreign minister November 2015.
    • lars hakanson on Exit Cameron: Europe will for good reason rejoice when the UK elects to leave. The country has over the years provided nothing but obstacles to European integration...
    • Michael Schuller on Immigration Scandals: The Home Office is keen to be seen to be acting tough on immigration, although I'm not sure that the wider project has anything to do with real number...
    • Geoff Roberts on What happened in Cologne?: The most surprising thing about the events in Cologne (and the most disturbing) is that some 600 incidents of theft, harrasment and rape were reported...
    • EmilyEmily on What happened in Cologne?: The author's argument is straightforward: Sexual violence is one beast; fears about migrants is another - let's not confuse the two. Alfalfa's poin...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement